News & Features » Miscellany

The Harry Potter books may be the best thing to happen to education in a long time.

Let's Hear It for the Professors and Students of H

by

comment
Has it ever happened before that books focusing on classrooms, library research, student study-groups, and professors have made the New York Times Best-Seller List? My guess is that young and old have been enjoying J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter volumes so much that few have taken time to think about the novels' school setting and the positive view they present of the importance of getting good professors, studying hard, and applying what you learn to life. We have yet to properly appreciate how seriously these books present the acquiring of an education, discovering the excitement of laboratory and greenhouse, reading history volumes long into the night, researching and writing essays, and applying the wisdom acquired to uncover the wonder of life's hidden magic. The good humor of the Hogwarts School Song sets the tone early in the first of the novels, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:

Teach us something please,
Whether we be old and bald
Or young with scabby knees. ...
So teach us things worth knowing,
Bring back what we've forgot,
Just do your best,
we'll do the rest,
And learn until our brains all rot.Imagination, of course, is the effective hook Rowling has going for her. Imagination and a series of mysteries with clues carefully sprinkled from chapter to chapter pull the reader along into "Harry Potter's School Days," a world of hard work, difficult puzzles, friends and foes, pain and wonder.

The fantasy of a British boarding school for "Witchcraft and Wizardry" may sound too odd for the American reader, but page after page reminds me of the learning community I found in the small liberal arts college I attended as well as the two small colleges where I taught for a number of years. In fact, the small and often beleaguered liberal arts colleges hidden among the business, medical, engineering, and art schools of our large universities bear a close resemblance as well. I think there are few of us who will fail to recognize somewhere in our own experience some corner of Hogwarts.

We follow Harry Potter, living among "muggles" who despise the magic hidden in what appears to be a very ordinary young boy. A letter invites him to discover his heritage by attending Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore's school, and the fantastic adventure in education follows. Harry soon learns that "there was a lot more to magic...than waving your hand and saying a few funny words." We join him in the arduous work of astronomy, herbology, history of magic, the dangers of classes in "transfiguration," the complex formulas for a course in "Double Potions," and the life-saving lessons of the course in "Defense Against the Dark Arts." The most conscientious student in the freshman class, Harry's friend Hermione, is always "buying a few extra books for background reading," convincing Harry and friends to set up a study group, and researching for hours in the library. What she learns she puts into practice, and on more than one occasion her expertise as a young scholar turns back deadly forces that threaten Harry. Her devotion to learning saves lives.

Rowling's good humor presents a community of wisdom seekers, likely to appear familiar, at least as an ideal, to those who have spent time in the halls of learning. Professors at Hogwarts come in all the sorts and styles one finds in most any college today. Professor McGonagall is a woman of authority yet deep humanity, "strict and clever," whose classes require the taking of "complicated notes," but whose lessons help one navigate life's many dangers. Professor Snape knows his subject, but he tends to reward his few favorites while seeking to demean and embarrass bright students he finds threatening and slower students he can't abide. Professor Gilderoy Lockhart is less interested in teaching than in playing to the media, and we meet him signing and assigning copies of his best seller, "Magical Me." He turns out to be not only egotistical, but incompetent as well. What he claims to know he has stolen from the work of others. Professor Dumbledore is not only a wise administrator who comes to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each professor and student, but a man of humility and humor.

The lessons taught by the faculty at its best have a parabolic richness that led my 13-year-old son to some of the richest conversations on symbolism we've ever had. This sort of richness is revealed, for example, in the lessons of a professor some make fun of as "Loony Lupin." Professor Lupin is eventually revealed to be a sensitive and learned man with a secret flaw, but vast wisdom. It is he who teaches even the most fearful students to deal with "boggarts," dangerous creatures that "take the form of that which you most fear." Lupin demonstrates how such forces are best dealt with in the company of your friends, and that "the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. The proper charm word to be used on boggarts is "riddikulus." Dozens of such imaginative lessons are sprinkled through the book, and discussing them can be both fun and revelatory.

I've heard that some are worried that the young are being "lured" into reading books filled with talk of magic and wizards, and I've even heard that a library or two has been asked to remove the volumes from the shelves. If stories of magic and wizards in the hands of youth worry us, then we must begin by removing the Bible, for it has vivid scenes where good and bad magicians turn their staffs into serpents that gobble each other up, and it is not without its witches calling up spirits from the underworld.

I hope that I've not been too didactic in approaching the enjoyment of the imagination that Rowling continues to unroll before us in the Harry Potter books, three out and more to come. The "new dimensions of the imagination" Bruno Bettleheim described years ago in "The Uses of Enchantment" become incarnate in the imaginative fun these Harry Potter books present. But the setting is the serious quest for learning in a school of professors of all sorts, and students who learn in order to discover the hidden magic in their own lives. To Harry Potter and his friends, that magic is neither boring nor irrelevant, but lifesaving. We may not quite be in the world Rowling pictures, where the trading cards that youngsters get with their candy picture people like Professor Dumbledore, or where students study in secret when their parents and guardians don't approve of such hard academic work, but to have best-sellers that offer us such a world is to be celebrated.

Clifford W. Edwards, Ph.D., is director of the religious studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Add a comment